By Kerry Mack
In true Italian spirit, Arthur Avenue is lavishly decorated for the Christmas season. Lights wrapped around lampposts gleam as shoppers from all ov
er the tri-state area and beyond pick out traditional Italian ingredients for their holiday feasts. Poinsettias and wreaths are in abundance, as well as red, white and green garland that hangs year-round. The smell of evergreens (and the occasional whiff of Mozzarella) tickles your nose.
To most Italians, the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s is extremely important, reflecting traditional values and customs such as family, togetherness, giving and, of course, food. Like many other immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the most Italian Americans add traditional dishes to their holiday feasts.
Fortunato Rizzi, a Bronx native, now lives in Dutchess County, north of New York City, and spends his holidays, in Binghamton, N.Y., about three hours to the northwest. Yet he always drives down to the Bronx with a cooler to collect his favorite Arthur Avenue specialties.
“It’s the food and the people,” he said recently. “They all know me there, when I go there they all recognize me. I sit down and smoke a few cigars with them. We sit down and have a glass of brandy together and reminisce about old times.”
Among the shops he visits are the produce and flower shop operated by Richard Liberatore, who took over the business of his father Joe, a staple of the neighborhood from the 1930s until he retired.
Richard Liberatore said, in the 1950s, Arthur Avenue was “an area where the neighborhood would shop,” adding, “Now most of the people come from the tri-state area.”
Joe Liberatore, who started out with a small pushcart business, was for years regarded by his neighbors as the unofficial “Mayor of Arthur Avenue.” The shop has now grown to the entire front left section of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
Rizzi met Liberatore during a weekly shopping trip. Rizzi now buys, among other items, hundreds of tomatoes that his wife makes into a year‘s worth of sauce.
For many visitors to Arthur Avenue, an illuminated sign welcomes them to Little Italy, not the first thing they expect to see in the Bronx. The sign reflects the widespread view along Arthur Avenue that it is “The Real Little Italy.” And shop owners and residents work hard to prove it.
In the Belmont section of the Bronx, Arthur Avenue is south of Fordham Road and not far from the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Garden and Fordham University. Italian immigrants and their children have owned and operated most of the shops and restaurants there for the last century, and the “Mom and Pop” charm remains even as many buses now bring tourists to the Bronx.
The restaurant and shop owners of Arthur Avenue pride themselves on the authenticity they have been able to preserve throughout the years. Their customers travel to Arthur Avenue looking for the Italian food they remember from their childhoods, the kind their Nonnas made.
David Greco, owner of Arthur Avenue Trattoria and Mike’s Deli, was born and raised in the neighborhood and has had family working on Arthur Avenue since the early 1920s. The founder of Arthuravenue.com, which promotes his deli, he has also appeared on the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Greco said, “Turkey dinner is not just turkey, it’s antipasto, it’s zuppa di meatballs.” Even people who aren’t of Italian descent, Greco said, “come and they want to eat like Italians, they want to buy the best. They don’t ask for second quality, they want the top quality.”
“Quality” is a word ubiquitously used along Arthur Avenue. Roseanne Lander, who has shopped there for more than 15 years, uses it to describe the products and service. This year, when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah came at the same time, she bought the ingredients for the lasagna she made for Thanksgiving, to serve with turkey and potato pancakes.
As Christmas rapidly approaches, Arthur Avenue is swarmed with shoppers looking for authentic Italian meats, cheeses, pastas, pastries and seven types of fish, which is an Italian tradition for Christmas. Arthur Avenue has it all — with a friendly atmosphere to boot.